As more and more professional growers turn to flowers as a cash crop, they're looking for where to begin, not only with what flowers to grow, but what should they actually sell. Bouquets? Arrangements? Design services?
One of our experienced flower growers, Betsy Busche of Spongetta's Garden, shares some insight on how she found her niche in the ever growing flower market.
How I Found my Niche and Product Offering
The difference between a bouquet, which is a variety of flowers quickly gathered together and sold without a vase, and an arrangement, where flowers are carefully placed in a vessel, is important. The difference in price between a relatively cheap bouquet and a more expensive arrangement reflects the labor involved. But as farmers, we tend to undervalue our design skills and charge less for that labor.
When I first started, I tried to do everything. One year, I grew hundreds of mini-vegetable varieties for making snack packs. Another year, I brought bunches of herbs to market. Three years ago, I realized I needed to completely focus on flowers, and growing almost 100 varieties kept me busy enough. I took an entrepreneurial course through a local community college, and this helped me focus even more.
Flower farming is very popular, so to find my place in it, I needed to develop a specialized market of my own. For me, that is flamboyant mixed bouquets sold in the greater Utica area.
We all need to narrow our focus to a working plan, but everyone always asks, where do I start? Beyond sunflower and zinnia, vegetable farmers exploring cut flowers should direct seed orlaya, bupleurum, larkspur, and bachelor button (centaurea) as soon as the ground can be worked and then focus on transplanting tender annuals in the first year, such as cosmos, celosia, gomphrena, statice, amaranth, and ageratum. From there, they can add perennials, biennials, and more complicated annuals in smaller bites each year.
One of my “products” is Fill a Vase. My customers drop off a vase and I use it to make the flower arrangement. I charge for my time and materials just as a florist would. This led us to work with a local ceramicist to create refillable vases. Husbands love this because it is easy and they trust me to create with their partner in mind. I also keep a calendar of birthdays and anniversaries and send out reminders. I have built a relationship with these people and know their favorite colors, and I imagine the space that I’m filling.
The purpose is important, especially when making arrangements. I ask myself questions about where it is going to be displayed. If it’s a kitchen island, every single angle is going to be seen, but if it’s a mantel, the arrangement needs to be wide and dramatic from the front. The colors need to reflect the mood of the space. Sunflowers really don’t enhance a Victorian decor the way lisianthus do. That said, something as simple as a marigold can play into any of those moods depending on the flowers surrounding it.
How I Select Flowers
My designs for the week start to take shape when I’m cutting. I might have an idea in mind as I go into the field, but as the stems go into the buckets, I start to see the moods and colorscapes form. This is where crop planning is important.
In my first year, I planted mixes of everything, but it was too chaotic. I overcompensated the next year with just one or two colors of each variety, but it got boring. I keep a commentary on what works each season, including the conditions.
At this point, I am only growing three colors of Benary Giant Zinnia: lilac, wine, and coral. I find that pink is a trap crop for Japanese beetles and salmon and carmine fade as the flowers develop. I love white and salmon Oklahoma zinnia, yet I still buy the Queeny Lime series as a mix every year.
Last year I only grew carmine gomphrena, but it quickly became monotonous, so this year, I gladly welcomed a mix. Colors are personal and a big part of what sets us apart from each other. It’s a journey to figure out what works best. Each season I intentionally add a half-dozen varieties to the plan as experiments to keep my designs fresh.
Working with Crop Seasonality
The availability of traditional flower categories fluctuates across the seasons. For example, there are many more spikes in spring and early summer, but fillers are harder to find in spring. Crop planning is really important to ensure that the bouquets are balanced and easy to put together. On bouquet-making days when everything fits together, I can whip out 30–40 in an hour or so, but when I have to think about which flowers to put with others, it can take several hours.
As far as crop planning, I always try to have a large amount of something reliable for each week; I planted feverfew and dianthus in June with a large patch of Solomon seal for filler. Everything else falls into place around these crops. Figuring out how many plants I need for how many weeks is crucial. For example, 40 plants of five varieties of feverfew will get me through about four weeks, from June into July. Unless it was this year when they all bloomed at once. Going into September, we are depending on tender annuals to fill all the roles. Succession planting into mid-July helps supply the prettiest blooms even as we get near frosts.
One of the most frequent comments I hear at the market is that my yard must be beautiful. My customers think I have a perfectly manicured English garden. The reality is that whenever something blooms, I cut it. Everything is planned for ease of production. We plant into black plastic strips, cover the paths with rye seed, and use a weed eater to keep it under control.
We live on a small lot in the middle of a village, so my friends and neighbors have graciously allowed us to take over their dormant gardens. I found myself driving in circles, so I split the gardens into seasons to lessen the commute. All the gardens except the spring garden are fenced, but irrigation is a challenge at all the sites. I succession plant as much as possible for a continuous supply through the frosts.
Colors That Haven't Worked for Me
There are two specific colors that I struggle with: bright yellow and classic red. For me, they just do not sell well, so I don’t intentionally plant them. One year, I had it in my head that I needed lots and lots of yellow, so I planted 120 yellow statice plants. They looked spectacular in the field, but I only used about 60 stems because their garish tone did not work with anything. My eyes were not happy. We brought bunches to market every week and dried bundle after bundle, but I finally declared that I hated it. There are still bushels of dried bunches in the corner of my studio. I love pale yellow and the golds of rudbeckia and sunflowers, but I have learned not to order marigolds, statice, zinnia, or dahlia in bright yellow. My relationship with red is the same. After one season of prolific red Oklahoma zinnia that did not sell, no more. Pink is also tough to try to sell week in and week out. I still plant it but in small patches for an accent color.